Chronic political deadlock in Congress threatens to derail the US economy, damage national security and undermine public trust in its leaders, outgoing US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Wednesday.
In his last major policy address days before he retires, the Pentagon chief blasted lawmakers for what he called a lack of leadership that has produced escalating budget crises.
The most urgent task facing the country was to overcome "partisan dysfunction in Congress that poses a threat to our quality of life, to our national security, to our economy, to our ability to address the problems that confront this country," said Panetta, who served as a lawmaker from California before holding senior posts under two Democratic presidents.
"Today, crisis drives policy," he told students at Georgetown University in the US capital.
"It has become too politically convenient to simply allow a crisis to develop and get worse and then react to the crisis."
But inaction is costly, he said.
"And the price to be paid is that you lose the trust of the American people. You create an aura of constant uncertainty that pervades every issue and gradually undermines the very credibility of this nation to be able to govern itself."
Panetta's tough speech comes as Congress faces a March 1 deadline to broker a budget deal to avert multi-billion dollar budget cuts, with military funding due to take a major hit.
The Pentagon chief, who served as CIA director before taking over as defense secretary in 2011, renewed his warning that if Congress fails to break the impasse, automatic budget cuts will jeopardize the military's readiness and force cuts to training, maintenance and weapons programs.
Panetta's frustration with the current bitter political climate was evident as he frequently strayed from his prepared text to drive home his point, lamenting that lawmakers apparently no longer knew how to reach a compromise.
"I've seen that attitude before," recalling his days in Bill Clinton's White House when Republican lawmakers helped force a government shutdown.
"And, when they did it in 1995, it badly hurt the American people. And it created a political backlash that damaged those who were blamed for that crisis.
"The same damn thing is going to happen again if they allow this to occur."
The looming threat of automatic defense cuts of roughly $50 billion this fiscal year, along with Congress's failure to adopt a proposed Pentagon budget for 2013, has forced the Defense Department to start laying off thousands of temporary workers while cancelling some maintenance and reducing flight hours for military aircraft, he said.
Panetta said the automatic cuts, or sequestration, were designed to be so dramatic that the prospect of so much pain would force lawmakers to cut a deal. But instead, there were some members of Congress who had a "callous attitude" that welcomed the automatic cuts as a tactical move.
"My fear is that there is a dangerous and callous attitude that is developing among some Republicans and some Democrats, that these dangerous cuts can be allowed to take place in order to blame the other party for the consequences."
The Pentagon already has had to scale back projected defense spending over the next 10 years by about $487 billion under the Budget Control Act adopted in 2011.
Panetta said he and top commanders had laid out a strategy for the next decade that took into account fiscal constraints while countering myriad threats, from upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa to cyber attacks and North Korea's nuclear program.
But if the automatic budget cuts take effect, the new strategy would have to be tossed out and the country's military readiness would face the most serious challenge for more than a decade, he said.
"My greatest concern today is that we are putting our national security at risk by lurching from budget crisis to budget crisis to budget crisis."
The US military's vast budget is the by far the largest in the world, with proposed spending for fiscal year 2013 of roughly $614 billion.